By Pearl Corry (appearing in BYU’s Pride and Prejudice as Mary Bennet)
According to Linda Robinson Walker of the Jane Austen Society of North America, “the Austen daughters’ schooling has been the indigestible lump in the cheerful family story.” The odd circumstances under which Cassandra, and in particular, Jane received an education have caused many historians to question the Austen family dynamic.
James Edward Austen-Leigh, nephew of Jane Austen and author of Memoir of Jane Austen, writes, “It cannot be doubted that her [Jane’s] early years were bright and happy, living, as she did, with indulgent parents, in a cheerful home” (39). What is odd, however, is that the majority of Jane’s early years were spent outside of the home. In fact, all the Austen children were entrusted to the care of village nurses between the ages of about three months and two years. Upon being weaned off of diapers and able to walk and talk to some degree, the children were sent back to their parents. James Edward calls this parenting technique “strange” (39), but writes of reassuringly frequent visits paid by Reverend George and Cassandra Austen to their children.
In 1783, when Jane and Cassandra were seven and ten years old, respectively, they were sent to a boarding school in Oxford run by the sister of their mother’s brother-in-law, Ann Cawley. Many historians marvel at the age at which Jane was sent away; even Cassandra, at ten, was considered young for boarding school. No explanation has manifested itself in relation to this choice, however their mother is reported to have made mention of the matter: “Jane was too young to make her going to school at all necessary, but it was her own doing; she would go with Cassandra: ‘if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off Jane would have hers cut off too…’”
In October of 1783, Mrs. Crawley moved her boarding school to a port city called Southampton due to an outbreak of measles in Oxford. Ironically, the move didn’t save her students from sickness. Cassandra and Jane, as well as Jane Cooper, a cousin attending the same school, caught what is thought to have been typhus fever brought ashore by sailors. Though the three girls were gravely ill, Mrs. Crawley chose not to inform their parents. The reason for this is unclear. It was only after Jane Cooper sent a letter to her parents in Bath that the Austens found out about the situation. Cassandra and Jane were removed from the school and brought home immediately. Jane was so ill that it took a full year for her to recover.
Following Jane’s convalescence, she and Cassandra were sent to The Abbey School in Reading. The year was 1785 and young girls in England were studying writing, spelling,
French, dancing, needlework, drawing, painting, music, and elementary arithmetic.
Though Jane is said to have been proficient in all these subjects, whether or not she gained her skills at The Abbey School is up for debate. According to a young woman by the name of Miss Butt who attended the school in 1790, the headmistress of the school, Mrs. La Tournelle (whose real name was Sarah Hackitt), “was only fit for giving out clothes for the wash, making tea, ordering dinner and, in fact, doing the work of a housekeeper.” Miss Butt went on to say that “The liberty which the first class had was so great that if we attended our tutor in his study for an hour or two every morning…no human being ever took the trouble to inquire where else we spent the rest of the day between our meals. Thus, whether we gossiped in one turret or another, whether we lounged about the garden, or out of the window above the gateway, no one so much as said ‘Where have you been, mademoiselle?’”
In 1786, Reverend Thomas Lea of Adlestrop, a cousin of Reverend George Austen, happened to be passing through Reading and took the time to visit Jane and Cassandra at The Abbey School. Several months later, the Austens abruptly withdrew the girls’ enrollment. It is theorized that Reverend Lea found the school to be less than adequate and shared his opinions with the Austens. Whatever the reason, the sisters never received formal schooling again.
When Jane and Cassandra arrived at home once and for all, their situation took a turn for the better. Jane was eleven years old. She was younger than any of her brothers were when they were sent away—still young enough, perhaps to allow for a fresh start. Her father granted her and her sister access to his library and encouraged her to write. Evidence of the trials in Jane’s childhood can be found embedded as witticisms in her novels. Perchance in this way she was able to come to terms with them.
Though in the end Reverend George and Cassandra Austen were somewhat able to make up for lost time with their daughters, historians can’t help but question why they chose to send their children to boarding schools in the first place. In reality, they had good resources at home that they could have offered to their children. Indeed, since 1773 (two years before Jane’s birth), Reverend Austen had acted as a teacher and mentor for young men preparing to receive a higher education. These men lived in the Austen home and were cared for by Mrs. Austen. They had access to the Reverend’s extensive library—which at one point numbered 500 volumes—from the beginning. Technically, the Austen home was a school. Perhaps there was not enough room in the house to accommodate both boarders and children? Unfortunately, this seems to be the most likely answer. In the words of Linda Robinson Walker, “Because her books have given us great joy, we long to find joy in Jane Austen’s life. It is thin on the ground. We do her greater honor by looking unflinchingly at the facts of her life and trying to recreate it as it unfolded, rather than writing it as we wish it had been.”
“Jane Austen’s Biography: Life (1775-1817) and Family.” The Republic of Pemberly. The Republic of Pemberly, 2011-2014. Web. 20 Jan. 2014. <http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/janelife.html>.
Vic. “Jane Austen Went to School.” Web log post. Jane Austen’s World. N.p., 20 Sept. 2010. Web. 20 Jan. 2014. <http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2010/09/20/jane-austen-went-to-school/>.
Walker, Linda Robinson. “Why Was Jane Austen Sent Away to School at Seven? An Empirical Look at a Vexing Question.” Jane Austen Society of North America. JASNA, n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2014. <http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol26no1/walker.htm>.